Another point of view
I'm currently reading Rhett Butler's People the new "companion piece" to Gone With the Wind (for an interview with the author read Melissa Whitworth's piece in the Telegraph). Actually it's not as bad as some of the reviews have made out, as long as you don't think too much about GWTW as neither Scarlett or Rhett feel like their Mitchell counterparts. It certainly does a very good job in clearing up the uncomfortable parts of the original for a 21st century reader; there's condemnation of the Klan, Rhett's supposed racial murder is explained away....it's a version that is certainly much easier to defend.
But Scarlett appears as a shadowy selfish figure; so far (three quarters in) I'm still not sure what McCaig's Rhett sees in her. Certainly we get a lot more of his inner pain but I'm not sure why he bothers with her. You have to remember Scarlett's attraction from Mitchell's book to be convinced.
Also the selling point of GWTW for me was the transgressive nature of Scarlett - a woman who refused to conform to the boundaries of southern womanhood (while of course being hypocritical about convention). This struggle - and her blindness over Ashley and Rhett is what made GWTW the bestseller it was. RBP loses this whole struggle with Scarlett as a small side character. This is not to say the book isn't enjoyable - it is - it's jsut not the sort that sticks in your mind.
What is really interesting is why it was written like this. The whole point of RBP as Donald McCaig tells it is not to do a straightforward sequel but to tell the same story from another angle - an idea I love
But it also made me think, what makes this approach work and what doesn't? The Wide Sargasso Sea is now seen as a classic in its own right. Why do I think RBP won't work the same?First if you are going to tell a story from another character's viewpoint I think you have to choose carefully. WSS works I think because the first Mrs Rochester is a) a vital part of Jane Eyre but not a character we know well b) has a crucial if tangential part in the plot c) has meaning beyond her character - the whole concept of the Madwoman in the Attic (Gilbert & Gubar) which has taken on the idea of Victorian ideas surrounding womanhood
Why doesn't Rhett work the same? Well he plays too big a role to start off with; there is lots we don't know about his past, but the interest for the reader is his relationship with Scarlett, a relationship that appears shadowy in this book. So far - although an interesting retelling of the civil war I don't feel hugely different about Mitchell's Atlanta, Scarlett or Rhett so far. There hasn't been a dramatic change in view.
The next point seems rather contradictory but I think it does tie together; in a way McCaig as Whitworth says is rewriting Rhett for a 21st century audience - as the New York Times review makes clear - the recasting of Rhett as Everyman. But do we really want Rhett as Everyman? Does that diminish him?
So my thoughts are: you need a smaller character but one on whom the plot hinges in some way; a character who represents an idea bigger than themselves; a character that in some way we have no firm opinion on or a very crude one word opinion of.
It made me wonder which other classics could actually work if rewritten with minor characters pushed to the forefront. Wuthering Heights is already told by multiple narrators. Rebecca has already performed the trick in a way by being written by the second wife. What others I wonder?